The Bather

For more than ten years, Olga had been bathing people in their homes. She didn’t earn a fortune, but she lived comfortably.  Her taxes were paid and her refrigerator was full. She even had enough for a movie once or twice a week, and every summer she could afford to take a two-week vacation to visit her sister in Entre Ríos.  Most important of all: she didn’t have to worry about the competition. Nobody else wanted to get involved in the home-bathing business. She knew some folks thought it was a terrible job. Cleaning other people’s grime. 

She fell into the job almost by accident. Around that time Olga was out of work; she’d been laid off from the accounting firm where she had been employed for years as an administrative assistant. The owner promised her a severance package that never materialized.  Olga hired an attorney and tried to sue, but her lawyer arranged a deal with the owner of the accounting firm.  They gave her a few pesos, not even enough to last three months. Immediately after this, she found a job in a china factory. She didn’t much like that job, but she planned on staying until something else came along. They paid her practically nothing, and she spent eight hours a day painting tiny blue and yellow flowers on white cups and adding gold borders to the flat plates. She arrived home every night with a backache.  After three or four months, she couldn’t take it anymore, so she quit.

She left the house every morning with the classified ads and returned home around three. Hungry, tired, and jobless.

One of those mornings, before she had left the house, the neighbor on the corner rang her bell. A fortyish man who lived alone with his mother. He explained that his mother had broken her hip and was in bed, unable to move. That she was going to have an operation in ten days and afterward would need bed rest and rehabilitation.  He could look after her and feed her reasonably well, but he needed someone to bathe her. No, said Olga, she’d never bathed anyone before and maybe it would be better to find someone with experience, a nurse, for example.

“It’s just that I don’t know any,” he said, “and my mother wants someone familiar to do it. That’s why we thought that you  . . .,” the man modulated his tone; he really knew how. “It was her idea. Go ask Olga,” my mother said. “She won’t refuse.”

The man seemed determined not to budge from the doorway until he had convinced Olga.

“Think about it,” he said.

“But I’ve never bathed anyone,” Olga repeated, “not even a baby.”

“Twenty pesos a bath,” he tempted her.

“Twenty?”

“Twenty. Two baths a week.”

Olga hesitated.

“Anyway, it’s only for a little while,” he added. “A month, let’s say, or maybe a few days longer, just till she completes her rehab.”

Olga made a quick mental calculation. One hundred sixty pesos a month for two weekly visits was good money. She started that very afternoon, and she no longer cared if the rehab took a few extra days.  Quite the opposite.  A month later her second client appeared. The neighbor on the corner had given him her phone number. For Olga this was a golden rule of her new job: the personal recommendation. Everyone who called invoked the name of some acquaintance or other. And the second golden rule: always visit the client before accepting the job.

*

Olga’s baths were very thorough. Full body. She didn’t leave a single crevice untouched by soap and sponge. Afterwards: talcum, perfume, deodorant. She clipped fingernails and toenails, and she also trimmed nose hairs and those little hairs that poked out of ears. Some weeks she gave three or four baths a day. It was good money. About a thousand a month. Maybe even a little more.

Olga carried an appointment book with each client’s schedule and a personal information card that she filled out on the first day to determine, among other things, if the client had allergies, diabetes, asthma, heart problems, or high blood pressure.

Some were easier, the ones who could move on their own, for instance. Those she could take into the bathroom. In general, this is what she did: she placed a plastic chair, one of those white plastic lawn chairs, underneath the shower nozzle.  She sat the client in it and bathed him calmly, without having to worry about slips or falls.

With the others, paraplegics or paralytics, it was harder because, naturally, she couldn’t move them from their beds. But she figured it all out quite neatly. Soon Olga learned that, like everything else, a bath had its own technique.

*

When Olga went to Entre Ríos to visit her sister, the two of them sat under a grapevine-covered gazebo nearly every afternoon, drinking mate. The vine provided a special coolness on summer days, and the two sisters lingered there until rather late, chatting about their lives. Look for a different job, Olga, her sister would tell her beneath the grapevine, a job like other people’s. And at home in Buenos Aires, Olga could imagine her sister thinking, back in Entre Ríos, When will she manage to find something else, to have a normal job?

But Olga thanked God every day for her job. Not every single day, but almost.

Two years ago she was asked to bathe a fat man who couldn’t get out of bed. He was a neighbor, too. Olga knew his son, Walter, who was her age and with whom she had often played when they were kids. This was a difficult client. He weighed nearly 450 pounds. The first few times were tough. His 450-pound expanse was stretched out in the middle of a double bed. First Olga washed the entire front of his body. Then she had him turn on one side. Walter had rigged an efficient system of straps. The straps were tied to heavy hooks that had been deliberately screwed into the walls beside the bed. The man grabbed the strap and held it tightly. Olga turned him, pushing against his back. They had to use extreme caution because of his heart. He had coronary problems, but at that weight, the doctor said, an operation would be impossible to consider. Because of the risk. When Olga finally succeeded in turning him, the man latched onto the strap to remain on one side while Olga washed that section of his exposed back. Then Olga ran to the other side of the bed, handed him the other strap, and helped him turn again, pushing against his back once more. Olga worked fast so that he wouldn’t become too agitated, because of his heart. His wife took advantage of those bath days to change the sheets. It was a pretty simple procedure. While he was turned on his side, they folded the dirty sheet to the middle of the mattress, replacing it with a clean one, also folded to the middle. And then, when they turned him toward the other side, they did the same thing. First they picked up half of the dirty sheet, and then they unrolled the fresh ones as best they could until they had covered the whole mattress. They hurried so that he wouldn’t over-exert himself. The first few times left Olga exhausted, and the next day she woke up with pain in her arms and her back. But later she learned how to manage the weight.

However, bathing him wasn’t the most difficult part for Olga. What was hardest for her was cutting his nails. She could move 450 pounds to one side and another without too much fuss, and yet she couldn’t cut his nails. It’s strange, Olga told her sister in Entre Ríos that summer. What happens is that his fingers are so fat that the flesh sticks to the nails and it’s very hard to insert the tip of the clippers between the skin and the nail. You have to be very careful.

Once Olga accidentally hurt him. She squeezed the clippers without realizing that she was cutting into part of his fingertip. And it was horrible because fingertips bleed a lot. Does it hurt? Olga asked him as she wrapped his finger in the edge of a towel to stop the bleeding. No, it doesn’t hurt, he said. And even though he tried hard not to cry, he couldn’t control the trembling in his chin and lower lip when he replied. No, Olga, it doesn’t hurt a bit, he said, wiping his eyes with his free hand.

           *

Around that same time, Olga also bathed an elderly man, nearly a hundred years old. Valentín Viau. A pianist who had performed in Paris and who kept newspaper articles announcing his concerts beneath the glass of the dresser in his room This old man couldn't get out of bed, either.  He barely had the strength to swallow. He was spoon-fed; everything was liquefied: squash, Swiss chard, hard-boiled egg, liver. Everything processed in the blender to a pasty consistency.   He was tall, although since Olga always saw him lying down, she described him as long—long and very skinny. Olga always noticed those hands of his with their delicate fingers in constant motion, as if they were forever playing the piano. The old man was as insubstantial as a feather. She sat him up gently and arranged him on a bath towel that she had spread over the sheets. He held on to the bars of his bed to stay upright.  The old gentleman looked like a little bird. Olga even spoke to him in a whisper so that her words wouldn’t make him tumble over on top of the mattress. And she treated him tenderly, with the same tenderness one uses with a days-old infant. When Olga had finished drying him, she knelt on the mattress and, holding him by the arms, eased him back down onto the bed again. The baths wore him out.  Immediately afterward, as soon as his head rested on the pillow, he would close his eyes. And there he’d stay, very quietly, as if asleep. But he kept moving his long, delicate fingers as though he were playing the piano. I can’t tell if he’s asleep, Olga would tell her sister. It’s possible.  Olga covered him up and, before leaving, she kissed him on the forehead. A noiseless kiss, so as not to wake him. And sometimes she’d stand there for a few seconds, listening to him breathe, in order to feel the shadowy wisp of air that fluttered in and out of his mouth.

*

But despite the fact that all her clients came with personal recommendations, Olga had a few surprises. Like the guy in Temperley who had phoned her one afternoon to bathe his wife. A crazy guy. He lived with a mannequin and said it was his wife. On the phone he had told Olga that his wife’s name was Alicia, and when Olga asked if Alicia had some sort of medical problem, he didn’t reply. The afternoon of the interview, Olga saw that the man had arranged bath salts, foam, and perfumed gel on the dining-room table. He said he had bought them especially for Alicia’s bath. He asked Olga not to wash her hair in the shower, but rather to wash it separately in order to leave it glossier. He had purchased almond-scented shampoo and a jojoba cream rinse. And a product for treating split ends. He told her that in the medicine cabinet she’d find barrettes and a hair band for combing Alicia out later.

“Can I see her?” asked Olga. “Is she in bed?”

“No, no,” the man said. “She’s not in bed. She’s in the kitchen.” He started walking in that direction, gesturing for Olga to follow. “We were about to have coffee.”

When Olga reached the kitchen, she saw, propped up on one of the chairs before a little cup of still-steaming coffee, one of those mannequins usually found in dress-shop windows.

“This is Alicia,” he said. “My wife.”

Apparently normal, but the guy was nuts. He took offense when Olga told him she wasn’t about to bathe a mannequin.  And he did something Olga would never forget. As he and Olga argued by the kitchen table, Alicia remained in the chair, sitting. He stroked her head, as if protecting her from Olga’s refusal. He even covered Alicia’s ears with his hands when Olga emphatically announced that she didn’t bathe dummies. At that moment, when he covered Alicia’s ears, her head tipped slightly toward Olga. A pair of glassy green eyes fixed their gaze on hers. Olga thought there was something strange about those eyes, or maybe it wasn’t the eyes. Maybe it was the painted smile that hardened her features.

That day she got off the subway at San Martín station and walked along Calle Florida toward Córdoba. She liked to walk along Florida Or along Lavalle. Any pedestrian street, really. Walking among people without having to concern herself with cars or buses, crossing from one display window to another without thinking about motorcycles. Or the shrill honking of those horns that always startled her.  She loved pedestrian streets. She imagined they were the patios of grand houses, peaceful and expansive, where one could stroll with an untroubled mind.

She stuck her hands in her coat pockets and fiddled with the scrap of paper where she had jotted down the address. A sheet of paper she had ripped from her appointment book, one which her fingers now crumpled every so often at the bottom of her left coat pocket.

Dunkan Parodi, Olga had written that afternoon when he phoned, and, as she jotted it down, she thought it was unusual for an Italian surname. Or simply an unusual name altogether. A name she had never heard before. With a K, Parodi had said on the telephone, and Olga made the correction. Oh, with a K, she had repeated as she went over the C she had written in the name Dunkan. Yes, with a K, Parodi replied, hollowing out the back of his palate and making the sounds crackle in that empty space.

When they hung up, Olga rewrote the name in her appointment book.

Dunkan Parodi.

*

She left the paper alone at the bottom of her pocket. She had memorized the address on the subway between Constitución and San Martín: Córdoba 307.

She stopped at two or three shop windows and bought a pair of heavy stockings at a place on the corner of Florida and Córdoba. She paid cash and dropped the three coins in change back in the same pocket with the address.

The wind tends to form a pocket at the corner of Córdoba and Florida. When Olga emerged from the lingerie shop she felt a cold gust hit her in the face. The wind seemed to be making superficial cuts on her face.

Her fingers now danced between the piece of paper and the coins. Less than thirty centavos was what the lingerie store clerk had given her in change.

Just before 3 p.m. she buzzed the intercom of Apartment F at Córdoba 307. Ninth floor. Five minutes to three. The time agreed upon for her interview with Dunkan Parodi.

“Yes?” said a voice.

The voice sounded garbled through the intercom. Broken up. Traffic noise obscured it even more.

“It’s Olga,” said Olga, pressing her face to the intercom again. She had gotten so close that when she pronounced the “O” of Olga her lips brushed against the rim of the intercom.  But Olga didn’t really notice because she was concentrating on hearing.  Or maybe it wasn’t the rim; maybe it was the button that activated the buzzer.

“Come in,” replied the voice from the ninth floor. At that moment no bus passed by the building and the voice from the ninth floor was clearer.

“Did you open the door?”

This time the voice coincided with the buzzer that was activated from the apartment to open the main door of the building.

But Olga didn’t respond right away. She hesitated for a few seconds, looking at her reflection in the surface of the stainless-steel panel of the intercom.  A plaque that distorted her face, causing its contours to puddle up in that silvery frame, making her nose look big and her eyes squinty.

When the elevator door closed, she looked at herself in the mirror. Even before pushing the button for the ninth floor. No doubt in order to verify the real size of her nose and eyes.

We’ll see, Olga said. But it was like a murmur that only she could hear. We’ll see, she repeated, thinking about this new client who awaited her on the ninth floor.

Dunkan Parodi.

*

The door of 9F opened before Olga had closed the elevator door behind her. A man in a blue suit and white shirt extended a handshake that Olga perceived as firm.

“Dunkan Parodi,” he said, and his broad fingers pressed lightly against Olga’s slender hand. “Have a seat.”

It occasionally happened that the person phoning to make an appointment gave his own name and not the client’s. So it didn’t strike her as unusual. Although there must have been a misunderstanding because she had asked very clearly.

“Client’s name?” Olga had inquired that afternoon on the phone.

“Dunkan Parodi.”

And she had thought as she wrote it down that it was a strange name, one she had never heard before.

“With a K, he had said, interrupting the brief silence that ensued as Olga wrote.

When Dunkan said Dunkan, he produced little explosions at the back of his throat, damp bursts of accumulated saliva.

“Oh, with a K,”and then she had corrected the C.

A misunderstanding, then.

Dunkan removed his blue jacket, draped it over the back of the chair, and sat down opposite Olga. She looked for the appointment book in the purse that rested on her lap. She wanted to complete the personal information card.

Maybe, Olga thought, there’s a sick person in the next room. The mother or some bedridden relative. And yet she had that feeling one gets when a house is empty. The near certainty that there was no one else in the other rooms.

She searched for the appointment book so she could fill out the card.  But as she lowered her eyes to look in her purse, she was distracted by the gleam of Dunkan’s black shoes. A steely glimmer down there that drew Olga’s gaze to the floor.

“All right,” she said, pen in hand. “Client’s name?”

“I’m the client.”

“You? What do you mean?” Olga asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Me. I want you to bathe me once a week.”

“But you’re not sick,” Olga said.

“You only bathe sick people?”

“Or bedridden.”

“That’s all?”

This had never happened to her before, she said. She’d never bathed a healthy person. She quickly accepted the coffee Dunkan offered her, and although she wasn’t sure she would take him on as a client, she filled out the information card anyway. And they agreed she would call him in two or three days to confirm.

*

That night when she returned home she did two things. First, she re-read the card stating that Dunkan Parodi was forty-nine years old, manager of a paper company, separated, two children, no surgeries, no allergies or illnesses, nothing at all. Second, she phoned a former client of hers, the one who had given Dunkan her number. Olga trusted him because she had bathed his mother-in-law for two years, until the woman died.

“Oh, yes,” said the former client.

And then, before she could ask any questions, he gushed like a waterfall.

“A great guy, that Dunkan. My wife’s relative. A few months ago he asked us for your number, Olga. He works like a dog all day long, but he likes his little pleasures, too. He dines at the best restaurants. He loves to dress well. Fine clothes, expensive suits. He’s crazy about ties and shoes.”

He also offered some other details, like the number of shirts and shoes he had amassed in his closet. Then they hung up.

All normal. A guy with money who likes to afford himself the luxury of being bathed once a week, she thought, replacing the receiver.

*

That afternoon at Dunkan Parodi’s house, as she prepared everything for his bath, Olga decided she wouldn’t mention any of this to her sister in Entre Ríos. She wouldn’t tell her, for example, about the difference between Dunkan Parodi and the rest of her clients. And when Olga thought about differences, she thought, among other things, about odors.

Because her clients always smelled bad. Bad and strong. There were sour odors emitted by those dry skins, odors that often even impregnated the sheets. A foul atmosphere surrounding those bodies that she could perceive as soon as she walked into the client’s bedroom. Open windows, ceiling fans, room deodorizers—all useless. A sourness that sometimes permeated Olga’s hands. That’s what had happened to her with her obese client and the reason that Olga used rubber gloves with him. On account of the sour sweat that dampened the folds of his belly and double chin.

The odor surrounding Dunkan, on the other hand, was a mixture of tobacco and perfume. A sweet, but dry, scent that emanated from him, yet left a trace in the air it passed through. Dunkan Parodi’s odor wasn’t an odor at all, Olga thought; it was an essence.

And so Olga didn’t put on her gloves that afternoon at Dunkan’s house. It didn’t even occur to her to look for them at the bottom of her purse.

Dunkan entered the bathroom before she had finished arranging everything. The water temperature was ideal. He took off his bathrobe and climbed into the tub, which Olga was filling with warm water.

She moistened the sponge and immediately noticed another difference in odors. The stale sourness of her clients’ bedrooms had been replaced by the scent of hay coming from Dunkan’s soap, which had already begun to perfume the bath. A green soap, dark and dense.

First she slid the soap along Dunkan’s back, and then her other hand followed with the natural sponge. Dunkan liked that type of sponge. Years before he had replaced his ordinary sponges with natural ones because he said that their thick, coarse fibers cleaned more thoroughly and exfoliated the dead cells that were deposited on the skin every day. He had told her so at the interview, while Olga took notes on the information card. Not now, as she bathed him, because now they hardly spoke. Now, inside, there was only the sound of the water filling the tub, muffling them gently, and the scent of hay.

Dunkan’s back, broad and stiff at first, began to relax as she soaped him.

Then she repeated the procedure with his neck and his arms. Soap, sponge. Soap, sponge.

She inserted the soap into the hollow of his armpit and scrubbed that dark cavity with short, brisk movements until a few soapy drops started running down the side of his body.

The soap came to a halt at Dunkan’s chest hair. A salt-and-pepper thicket framed by his nipples.

Then she soaped his belly and his legs. Dunkan lifted his legs, resting his feet on the edge of the tub.

Olga slid the soap down his legs, all the way to his feet. Kneeling on the floor, she massaged Dunkan’s ankles, making circles with the foamy sponge.   From the floor, Olga could see that Dunkan had lightly closed his eyes, and then, still on her knees, she slowed her rhythm, continuing to draw circles around his ankles. First in one direction, then the other.  And back again. His left ankle first, then the right, and then the left once more.

When she had finished with his ankles and gotten up from the floor, she added a neck massage that she had never used on any other client before. She soaped her hands thoroughly and encircled Dunkan’s neck with open fingers, reaching from the nape to the Adam’s apple. Then she pressed down lightly with the fleshy part of her thumbs, moving upward in a straight line from his spine to the back of his neck.

He closed his eyes. Olga closed hers. Just as Dunkan had done before, when she was massaging his ankles. As he was doing right now. Again. Only now Olga couldn’t see him.

Both of them, eyes closed.

She, massaging his neck.

And him.

Olga slid her soapy thumbs behind his ears and then, still using her thumbs, lightly stroked his earlobes.  She ran her index fingers along the inner curve of his ears, softly, barely penetrating those hard-ridged folds with her fingertips.

Eyes closed.

Both of them, eyes closed.

She hurried to dry his face as soon as she had turned off the faucet. He hated feeling those drops running down his face. He had said so at the interview, and although Olga hadn’t made a note of it on the card that day, she recalled it now perfectly.

And so, with one corner of the towel, Olga dabbed at Dunkan’s face. Gently, but not with the kind of gentleness one uses with a newborn, of course. It was something like that, but it wasn’t the same.

Then she wrapped him in a bath towel and dried him in sections.

The bathroom mirror was big, so big that it reflected their entire trunks, cutting them off at pelvis level.  Dunkan and Olga’s reflections were still foggy in that mirror, although the steam had begun to condense. On both their bodies lingered traces of the dampness that remains after a bath. Their skin looked shiny and lubricated, slippery.

*

She hardly noticed when the wind at the corner of Córdoba and Florida began to form a pocket around her. For a few seconds, her body was encapsulated in a whirlwind, till she headed down Florida. There were more people on Florida now; she could barely make her way through.

Dunkan Parodi, an unusual name, strange for an Italian surname.

Closing time for offices and banks. No wonder there were so many people clogging the pedestrian street.

Maybe her sister in Entre Ríos had been right that day beneath the coolness of the grapevine when she told her that she didn’t have an ordinary job.

The scrap of paper with the address was still there, together with her change from buying the stockings, at the bottom of her coat pocket.

Córdoba 307.

Natural sponges.

Dead cells.

Eyes closed.

 

From Amigas mías. Copyright Ángela Pradelli. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Andrea G. Labinger. All rights reserved.